Do you see the glass as half full or half empty?

For a while, back in the last decade, interviews for freelance contracts (and for full-time jobs, I assume) were loaded with pseudo-psychological trick questions. One I remember vividly involved a 5-inch high water glass with about 2 inches of water in it.

half empty half full

When asked whether the glass was half full or half empty, the candidate picks their preferred alternative. The half-full optimist gets the job, of course, while the half-empty pessimist is dismissed to consider the error of her ways.

I had a serious problem. I knew which alternative I should choose to get the project contract. But…but…the glass sitting on that desk didn’t fit either situation. It wasn’t half full, it was roughly 40% full. It wasn’t half empty, either, it was 60% empty. What should I say?

If I’d been interviewing for a tech writing job in a research lab, I would have been tempted to say that initial observation indicated the glass was less than half full, but a simple series of experiments would settle the issue, and we could probably get a grant for the study.

This wasn’t a research lab, though, it was a company that provided payroll and benefits management services to other corporations. Strict dress code, rule-driven work environment, hierarchical management structure. I thought for a bit, then asked the interviewer how her manager would answer that question.

I got the job.


For a more scientific speculation on the half-full vs. half-empty dichotomy, see this XKCD cartoon:

About Kat

Cat lover, singer, early music addict, reads a lot. Former R&D chemist with an obsessive need for variety. Now active as a freelance technical writer and editor, web designer, photographer, computer coach, and trainer. Owner, MasterWork Consulting (
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